Justifying the Unjustifiable

MPs are no ordinary citizens. The 70 elected representatives of the people are expected to tread carefully and impose the necessary self-restraints

Two phrases have become irritatingly repetitive when it comes to press reports about the tsunami of scandals which has been sweeping over the country over the past months. The first of these is “toutes les procédures ont été suivies” followed by “we have the same rights as ordinary citizens”. Both are used by people in positions of power to justify what are often unpardonable cases of blatant abuse of authority with regard to allegations of fraudulent practices and other financial misdemeanours or cases of nepotism. It might therefore be salubrious in this context to attempt to go back to some of the basic principles of the notions of accountability and responsibility on the part of serving politicians and other people in authority.

We have the same rights as ordinary citizens. These words are often uttered by our parliamentarians to justify actions which are perceived as either abuse of position or simply as acts of nepotism. A return to basics teaches us that a parliamentarian is a person who has solicited and obtained votes from the citizens of the country for the privilege of representing them for a definite mandate. The electorate in turn “deputes” their powers of decision regarding matters of State to their elected representatives who take a solemn oath to act in the general interests of the population under all circumstances. Collectively Members of Parliament are a privileged group in any form of democracy — they are vested with legislative and executive powers that can determine the fate of the nation at any time.

Over the recent past, Members of Parliament have voted considerable increases in remuneration and other benefits in kind for themselves – travelling, duty free cars, hefty pensions, etc. The rationale for this has been twofold. First, it was meant as a means for allowing people of lesser means to join politics as opposed to the days when only people of “independent” means could afford to do so. Second, this was viewed as the surest way of reducing temptations to get involved into even remotely dishonourable activities.

It is incontestable that these developments have indeed significantly widened the diversity of background of those who join politics. It is also true however that they have favoured the development of what is often referred to as a “class of professional and careerist politicians”.

In our democratic setting, there exists an explicit quid pro quo for enjoying such privileges; the elected representatives of the population agree to subordinate their private rights and privileges as citizens, to the service of the general interest for the duration of their mandate. This is why it is necessary to re-emphasize the ethical content of political engagement and commitment, which is not the same as calling for the introduction of a “code of conduct” for politicians as is regularly mentioned by some, no doubt, well-intentioned observers. The latter would in fact be absurd, because it would only serve to validate the absence of the spirit of engagement and commitment which is presumed to be an integral part of the decision of any individual to join active politics – to serve the greater good of the city, and if need be at the expense of his own immediate personal interests.

Lest the above may seem too theoretical or “unrealistic”, a few concrete examples may usefully illustrate what it implies in real day-to-day politics. When the MMM as a leftist party decided to join parliamentary politics, there were a number of senior lawyers in its ranks. None of them – and I may cite the example of my late friend and “colistier” Kader Bhayat, a senior and respected barrister – would even imagine appearing for an employer in an industrial case, as a matter of conviction and principle.

What a contrast to what we are witnessing today as Members of Parliament are actively involved in the defence of people accused of drug “trafficking.” While we take the point that every accused is entitled to a defence, the larger argument is that there must surely be an ethical and moral obligation on the part of an elected Member of Parliament to consider all the implications carefully when confronted with such a situation.

The decision to stand for the privilege of representing the people of his constituency and of the country surely imposes some constraints on the behaviour of any individual if only because as such he is NO ORDINARY CITIZEN. What applies for barristers of course applies similarly to all Members of Parliament who need to come to terms with the fact that life is made of hard choices and the 70 elected representatives of the people are expected to tread even more carefully and impose the necessary self-restraints when confronted with such moral dilemmas.

 « Les procédures ont été suivies »

Does the fact that all procedures have been diligently followed in accomplishing a task necessarily make everything right independently of the resulting consequences? It would seem that this is what we are being made to believe by those who use this argument as a line of defence. The debate around this question can have wide ramifications such as the determination of the responsibility of those who simply obey orders and end up doing the most awful things. Context always matters in such cases.

For the purpose of our argument the context is fairly straightforward. Several institutions – from the national airline to the Mauritius Duty Free Paradise, the Ministry of Health and the Financial Services Commission (FSC) in the latest instance -, have been involved in highly contentious “affairs” which have caused grave prejudice to their reputation and embarrassment to government.

In each of the cases the responsible parties have claimed that they have done nothing wrong because “procedures have been followed.” This is indeed a lame excuse. Administrative procedures consist of the sum of processes which ensure that decisions taken by the Board are executed diligently and in a transparent manner. They deal with the how questions as opposed to the policy matters which remain the responsibility of the top management. A poor outcome cannot be transformed into a positive effect simply because the established procedures have been followed.

In the case of the FSC, one senior minister has suggested that the Directors are not to be blamed because it is not the Board which delivers licences. While it is undisputable that Boards do not accomplish any such tasks, this line of reasoning does beg the question: then what does the Board do and why are the directors remunerated?

The simple answer to the question is that directors are bound to accept ultimate responsibility for the outcome of the operations of the organisation under their stewardship. Even more so when “all procedures have been strictly followed” and the outcome is catastrophic pointing to the failure of what has been defined as the “governing functions” (responsibility of the Board) as opposed to the administrative functions (implementation of decisions).

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